Rosa's Taco Shop, 328 East University, Mesa, 964-5451. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Everyone knows there are only three conceivable reasons to venture out for Mexican food. Two of them are that it's cheap. The other is that it's filling.
Some argue that tacos, enchiladas, chimichangas, burros and tostadas tease the palate with a complex blend of exquisite flavors and delicate seasonings, monuments to the culinary arts.
Such folks, I've discovered, have usually spent the last decade in the Yukon Territory, feeding themselves through a hole in the ice.
To me, most Mexican food has all the shading and nuance of a Charles Bronson flick; the dishes run the gamut of sensations from A to B. So when mealtime rolls around, my first inclination is to make a run from the border.
Rosa's Taco Shop, though, may require a complete attitude adjustment on my part. It entirely subverted my deep-rooted prejudices against Mexican fare.
It even overcame a self-inflicted obstacle to critical affection: It's located so far out on University Drive that I feared I might have to reset my watch to Central Daylight Time.
But when you stack everything up against the food here, these quibbles don't amount to a hill of refried beans. The fare at this 18-month-old place is simply great.
It's a festive-looking joint that summons up visions of a Baja-beach taqueria without the flies. The loud, south-of-the-border music, colorful Mexican tile, pi¤atas, beer pennants and palm fronds above the rest-room entryway help invoke the mood.
The good vibes actually start before the food even arrives. This place is neat as a pin. The help is constantly wiping tables clean and picking up mealtime remains. Plastic plates and an "Order Here" line keep overhead, labor costs and prices down.
What's particularly appealing about the food is how fresh-tasting and greaseless it all seems. Perhaps that's because Rosa's cooks with canola oil, not lard.
The nachos are first-rate, a huge portion of cheese-draped chips slathered with ground beef, sour cream, beans, cilantro-laden salsa and heady guacamole that tasted like it didn't come from a 25-gallon Price Club drum.
But the key ingredients here are the meats. The pork, beef and chicken are nothing short of superb. Rosa's says they're all marinated in fruit juice for 12 hours, then slowly oven-baked for another ten. Next, the meats are shredded, charbroiled and basted in their own juices. Whatever Rosa's does, they're sensational.
And you don't get dainty, little, fork-size pieces, either. The chicken burrito, for example, sports big chunks of moist, white-meat chicken breast, not disturbing-looking pellets of dubious origin.
The outstanding pork torta furnishes juicy hunks of shredded pork so soft that you don't need much more than a set of baby teeth to rip through it.
And the miraculously tender beef in the hefty chimichanga has a zippy snap, a winning combination of taste and texture.
The meats make Rosa's tacos particularly alluring. They come crammed in two soft, corn tortillas, and padded with cheese, greenery and tomato. These beauties are so good I wouldn't consider Taco Bell's version even if they paid me 59 cents.
But the best taco of all, and maybe the best thing here, is the fish taco. Marinated in honey and herbs, the mild fish has a delightful, sweet tang, set off by crunchy red cabbage. Yum.
Rosa's makes its own salsas, too: two taco sauces, mild and hot; a pungent tomatillo; and a ferocious habanero chile salsa that shouldn't be touched without gloves.
About the only uninteresting items here are the rice and beans, strictly routine concoctions with no particular flair.
I'm so impressed with Rosa's that I'm trekking back here to fill up on more lard-free treats. I may even give Death Wish IV another shot.
Herrera's Burrito Company, 1031 Grand Avenue, Phoenix, 257-9777. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
A lunchtime hangout for the nearby State Capitol crowd, this popular place has a real pleasant, down-home feel. The friendly folks who run it seem genuinely glad to serve you.
Inside, it's no bigger than a living room, furnished with four picnic tables, artwork for sale and a television on the counter. A framed letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton hangs proudly on the wall, thanking the owners for their suggestions on how to control the gang problem. Blinds keep out the sun and Grand Avenue grunge, while a hardworking air conditioner keeps cooks and customers cool.
When the inside fills up, diners can retreat to the backyard, which houses a small, shaded patio, with plastic chairs and oilcloth-draped tables.
Herrera's menu doesn't go beyond the basics, but some of what it does is far superior to what I'm accustomed to. Some isn't. Everything, though, has a homemade touch.
That touch works best in the pepito sub, a dynamite Mexican sandwich filled with luscious, grilled, marinated brisket, tomato and hunks of creamy avocado on a buttered, fresh hero roll. This is a two-handed sandwich that gets my juices flowing just thinking about it.
So does the huge, deep-fried machaca, which is also distinguished by terrific beef. (Herrera's has no pork or chicken.) Here the meat comes in shredded hunks, tender and juicy, in a scrumptious, crispy tortilla, deftly perked up with green onions. It's irresistible, but if you down it at lunch, you may experience afternoon productivity problems.
The meat appears in yet another form in the taco, this time in thin strips glued together with cheese. Either of the two salsas will provide a boost: the exceptional taco sauce, dark red, smoky and hot; or the milder, cilantro-flecked tomato version.
Surprisingly, the burritos had the least appeal. The green chile burrito was disappointingly puny, almost all tortilla and no chile. The carne in the carne asada, meanwhile, used a different cut of beef from the meat in the pepito sub and machaca. These small chunks were chewy and gristly. The substantial chorizo-and-egg burrito, though, had a lot more character, delivering a sharp, spicy kick.
Enchiladas, tostadas and tamales didn't go much beyond routine. Neither did the mushy, nondescript refried beans or the dry Mexican rice, which tasted as if it had been sitting around a bit too long.
Herrera's doesn't transform Mexican food. But the pepito sub, machaca and tacos are definitely good enough to keep you from sprinting toward Canada.
El Guapo's Taco Xperience, 3015 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 423-8385. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
El Guapo's, a new, eager-to-please, fast-food eatery, has several things going for it.
Decor isn't one of them. Sombreros, a picture of an armadillo and a velvet painting of a bullfighter lack aesthetic enchantment. So do the Firebirds pennant, the little plaster donkey loaded with firewood and a plaster cactus shading the politically incorrect sleeping Mexican.
Much more atmospheric is the icy tubful of bottled, sugar-laden Mexican soft drinks. The nifty salsa and condiment bar, with four kinds of homemade sauces, radishes, lime, onions and cilantro, also spruces up the ambiance. So does the high-decibel, high-energy, ay-yay-yay Mexican music.
The nachos loco, loaded with strips of beef, olives, beans and diced tomatoes, promised to get the evening off to a fast start. Instead, it came to a screeching halt, due to the dreadful Cheez Whiz-type glop spread all over some less-than-crispy chips.
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El Guapo's features tacos, and most of them won't let you down. The mahimahi version is quite tasty, grilled, marinated fish coated with melted cheese. Equally tempting is the beef taco, strips of tender, charbroiled meat. The chicken in the chicken taco is just little pieces of diced fowl, but it has a fresh, just-grilled-up flavor. Only the pork taco fell below standard, done in by untrimmed, fatty globules of meat.
The burros are serviceable, good enough to fill up your belly without capturing your heart. With a bit of spunky pico de gallo from the salsa bar, the chicken burro does creditable work. The bulky chorizo-and-egg burro is less spicy than I'm used to, perhaps a concession to delicate Scottsdale palates. Tortas, tostadas and cheese crisps will quell an appetite, but not excite it.
Oddly, the beans here outclass the rest of the menu. No refried mush, but a peppy mix of whole pinto and black beans that comes topped with cheese, in a savory broth.
El Guapo's has no pretensions, and no ambitions beyond satisfying your hunger. It's cheap. It's filling. It's Mexican.